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2013-12-18

Debate: Is Academic Group’s Boycott of Israel a Victory or Setback for Justice in Middle East?

Guests

Eric Cheyfitz, professor at Cornell University, where he teaches American literature, American Indian literature and federal Indian law. He has written several books, including The Poetics of Imperialism. He is one of the members of the American Studies Association, or ASA, who endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. He opposed the American Studies Association vote to join the global campaign to boycott and divest from Israel.

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The American Studies Association, a group representing thousands of U.S. scholars, voted to boycott Israeli universities on Sunday. Members backed the boycott by a ratio of more than 2-to-1, citing "the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students" and "the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights." The association’s vote to boycott follows a similar measure approved Monday by the leadership council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. In April, the Association for Asian American Studies also supported an academic boycott of Israel. Backlash against ASA’s boycott came quickly. William Jacobson, a clinical professor at Cornell Law School, says he now plans to challenge the group’s tax-exempt status. Others were more critical of the boycott approach itself. The largest professors’ group in the United States, the American Association of University Professors, said it opposed the boycott in part because it is largely symbolic. The resolution has no binding power, and no U.S. colleges or universities have signed on. We host a debate on the resolution with two guests: Cornell University Professor Eric Cheyfitz, who endorses a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Cary Nelson, who opposes the boycott.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a debate over what is being hailed as a major milestone for the global campaign to boycott and divest from Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. On Sunday, the American Studies Association, a group representing thousands of U.S. scholars, voted to boycott Israeli universities. Members backed the boycott by a ratio of more than two-to-one, citing, quote, "the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students" and "the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights." The association’s vote to boycott follows a similar measure approved Monday by the leadership council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. In April, the Association for Asian American Studies also supported an academic boycott of Israel.

Meanwhile, backlash against ASA’s boycott came quickly. William Jacobson, a clinical professor at Cornell Law School, says he now plans to challenge the group’s tax-exempt status. Others were more critical of the boycott approach itself. The largest professors’ group in the United States, the American Association of University Professors, said it opposed the boycott in part because it is largely symbolic. The resolution has no binding power, and no U.S. colleges have signed on.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Ithaca, New York, Eric Cheyfitz is with us, one of the members of the American Studies Association who endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a professor at Cornell, where he teaches American literature, American Indian literature and federal Indian law. Professor Chafitz has written several books, including The Poetics of Imperialism.

Also joining us by Democracy Now! video stream is Cary Nelson, who opposed the American Studies Association’s vote to join the global campaign to boycott and divest from Israel. He took a similar position when he was president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012, professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Professor Cheyfitz. Talk about the significance of this vote and how it took place, the American Studies Association vote.

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me on. Well, the vote came about because the activism caucus of the American Studies Association brought forward a resolution based on the Asian American Studies resolution that supported the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. And that resolution then went to the national council—or it went to the executive committee, who passed it on to the national council, which voted unanimously to support it, just recently, I think December 4th. And from there, it went to the vote of the entire membership, who, as you pointed out, for those who came out to vote, supported it, I believe 66 percent in favor. So that’s—that’s the origin.

It answers a call—and this is important—from the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which was announced in 2004, and which asked people around the world, organizations around the world, to support this boycott. And that was a call from Palestinian civil society. You can go to their—certainly the website of the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and there are over a hundred and—well, there are 171 organizations—unions of farmers, unions of workers, professional organizations—that support that boycott. So it was in response to a specific call.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the boycott mean?

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Well, the boycott means—first of all, I wouldn’t downplay symbolism and visibility—the Palestinian cause, particularly in the United States, where it does not get a fair representation in the press, needs visibility. But it also can have practical effects down the road. Certainly, boycotts in—during the civil rights movement here in the United States and boycotts in South Africa had those effects, by putting precise material pressure on institutions who were supporting various oppressive regimes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Cary Nelson, could I ask you to respond? Why is it that you are opposed to an academic boycott, and this academic boycott, in particular?

CARY NELSON: Sure. Well, the AAUP has, for many years, opposed all academic boycotts, basically because we believe that what’s most desirable is to keep free exchange amongst academics worldwide and to do everything possible to facilitate all kinds of intellectual and cultural exchanges between academics. And we’re well aware that saying that you can simply boycott a university and not have an impact on its faculty members is really a false kind of reasoning. If Ben-Gurion University funds the travel of six of its members to come to the American Studies Association meeting and pays their registration fees directly, that presumably is unacceptable, because it’s a relationship between the ASA and an Israeli university. So, it simply is false to suggest that interchanges between American and Israeli faculty members won’t be compromised by this, you know, should it really take any effect.

But I think, more deeply, the AAUP has never opposed economic boycotts. And I, personally, am very interested, have for many years supported an economic boycott of West Bank industries. I think Israel needs to get out of the West Bank. And I’m interested in targeted economic pressure to encourage, if not Bibi’s government, at least some future Israeli government, to negotiate really with—in good faith with the Palestinians. So, there are both practical reasons, in terms of the effects on Israeli and American academics; there are principled reasons, which reflect a desire to maintain academic freedom worldwide, which really does have to mean free interchange; and finally, there are political reasons—for me, at least—feeling that this whole boycott argument is really not an effective strategy, it’s a counterproductive strategy. I’m in favor of strategies that might actually help move the Middle East to a two-state solution, which is what I’ve long believed in.

I think, to some degree, I also have to say I think that the AAUP did a really good job of arguing the case against academic freedom, even though the ASA leadership wouldn’t put our letter on their website, which they—they produced a very one-sided website as a way of reaching out and trying to persuade its members. But I think, to some degree, the AAUP was boxed into making an argument that the ASA members really didn’t care about. It’s not fundamentally about academic freedom. It’s not even fundamentally about boycotting Israeli universities. This effort within the ASA is part of a long-term effort to delegitimate the state of Israel—that is, to move—to remove any sense of moral authority or reason to exist for the state of Israel, amongst at least opinions of American academics. And that’s what it’s really about, I think, fundamentally. That’s something the AAUP really wasn’t prepared to address, because we don’t talk about—you know, we don’t officially talk about those kinds of political issues.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Eric Cheyfitz, could you respond to what Cary Nelson said, that a boycott of this kind is, first of all, counterproductive, and, second of all, that this particular one is just seeking to delegitimate the state of Israel?

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Well, there’s no evidence of that whatsoever in any statements that the ASA has put out, nothing about delegitimizing Israel. It has to do with protesting the oppression, the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and the suspension of their academic rights on the West Bank and in Gaza.

The AAUP’s standards, which are actually the gold standards for academic freedom, have nothing to do with institutions. You can read those standards. They have to do with the rights of individuals within institutions—teachers, scholars and students—to speak out freely, in—particularly in relation to the scholarship that they’re doing. So, boycotting institutions is not a direct—is not directed at the academic freedom of individuals, who are free to do their research, teach and travel. The ASA has said in their statement that they welcome Israeli scholars and Palestinian scholars of all persuasions to come to ASA meetings. And I really think that to charge the ASA with trying to delegitimize the state of Israel is an actual—is a very, very skewed reading of anything that the ASA has put out.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nelson, can you respond?

CARY NELSON: Sure. Well, first of all, I’m glad—hello, Eric. We’ve been allies—

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Hi, Cary.

CARY NELSON: —on some other issues in the past, but apparently not this one. I’m very glad that Eric is an expert on academic freedom. I have, of course, co-authored a number of the AAUP’s statements to that effect, and obviously I got it wrong, and I’m glad to be corrected, if I can be a little bit sardonic.

Look, academic freedom is also about the collective, the collective academic freedom of faculty, both of majority faculty groups and minority faculty groups. It’s not just about individual academic freedom. But let’s set that—let’s set that aside. You know, why do I think—why do I think this whole argument within the ASA was actually about something other than an academic boycott? Yes, none of the statements that the ASA made, none of its official pronouncements, said what I just said was basic impulse behind it. What I’m basing my argument on is the writings of many of the proponents of the boycott. Talk about David, Omar, Malini, people who—you know, some of whom I’ve known rather well for years—and their writings, including those just published this year in the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, where we staged, you know, a rather full debate on the issue of academic boycotts. Their writings made it quite clear that they feel the Israeli state has no legitimacy.

They typically believe in a one-state solution. And, you know, Americans, I think, can be persuaded that a one-state solution in the Middle East will usher in a kind of peaceable kingdom, a wondrous democratic utopia, despite the fact that, you know, we now look at the effects of the Arab Spring, and we don’t see a lot of effective democracies taking shape in the Middle East. There’s too much sectarian hatred. There’s too little historical experience of democratic institutions. It may be in 50 years that, you know, Egypt will have a genuine democracy. I’m kind of not holding my breath for Iran, or Syria, for that matter. But, you know, looking at the one-state option, I think, is to look at large numbers of dead Arabs and dead Jews. And that’s been behind the arguments that the—many of the advocates within the ASA and elsewhere for the eventual political solution to the crisis, the ongoing, decades-long crisis in the Middle East. So, if I look at their writings, what I see is a long-term progressive effort to delegitimate the state of Israel. And this is just one stage in trying to convince people that the state of Israel has no legitimacy.

And I think that hasn’t been what people have been saying about this, but I think we need to say it, because otherwise we don’t understand why—why were so many ASA members uninterested in the arguments that really were focused on the problem of the boycott? The arguments that ASA leaders made in favor of the boycott were really, I think, you know, either absurd or bogus. I mean, the president of the ASA, when challenged by The New York Times, the Times asked him, "Well, aren’t there other states in the Middle East with much worse human rights records than Israel?" and he made the really—I mean, it’s howlingly funny, in one sense, but it represents political irrationality: "Well, you’ve got to start somewhere." So I suppose that, you know, we’ll soon see an ASA resolution urging an academic boycott of China. And I think as soon as Syrian civil society gets itself together to make a request to the ASA, which of course won’t happen—and it won’t happen from China, either—then the ASA will be ready to step up to the front based on its deep regard for human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cheyfitz, if you could respond? There’s a lot to respond there.

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Yeah. First—

AMY GOODMAN: And also, just explain what this vote actually voted for.

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Yeah, they voted to support the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. That’s what the vote was for.

As far as the writings of the 5,000 members of the American Studies Association, the very nature of academic freedom is that there are diverse responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of them support a one-state solution; some of them support a two-state solution. Some of them talk about both sets of solutions. This is what academic discourse does. And to try to claim that the ASA therefore represents one set of those writings by some people is, of course, to misrepresent what representation is all about. So, I dismiss that. I dismiss that argument. I think Professor Nelson just carried that to extremes that are not warranted by the record in any way—any way, shape or form.

The boycott is specifically focused on a call by Palestinian civil society, an overwhelming number of organizations, for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel, because diplomacy has failed in the Middle East. The United States is not an honest broker in this process. And so, it can’t hope for success. And diplomacy having failed, and boycotts being a very legitimate form of civil resistance, the Palestinians called for such a boycott. The ASA responded to that call in a principled way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Eric Cheyfitz, could you explain—respond specifically to what Cary Nelson said about the targeting of Israel as against many other countries with equally abusive human rights records? Is it only that their civil societies haven’t asked?

AMY GOODMAN: And we only have 15 seconds.

ERIC CHEYFITZ: Well, the first reason is, yes, there was a specific call by Palestinian civil society. That’s important. And second of all, the United States and Israel have a particularly special relationship, and Israel is a very crucial—obviously, the Palestinian conflict is very crucial in the Middle East. So focusing right now on that particular relationship, I think, is very, very, very important.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank both of you, Professor Eric Cheyfitz of Cornell and Professor Cary Nelson of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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